My next job was to die a thousand deaths.
I had to act out the parts of all the sailors in various conditions of
leaping, swimming, nursing injuries, or manning oars. Wearing a navy uniform that I found in a surplus store, I jumped off a platform and writhed around on the ground, trying to imagine what it would have been like for the various sailors who were coping with the tragedy.
My wife took snapshots with a digital camera. One of the photos has a motion blur effect that I used in the final painting. There were something like 90 figures in all, and I wanted to make each one a little actor facing his own terrible drama.
One of the most helpful parts of the research was a visit with a naval historian named Colan Ratliff at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda, Maryland. This was an awesome place to visit, but I couldn't take pictures because it's a classified research facility.
Mr. Ratliff, who works deep in the heart of the complex, has built several museum models and drawn extensive plans of the vessels involved in this battle.
From our consultations, and from the approved concept sketch, I made a comprehensive line drawing and sent copies to Mr. Ratliff. His notes, drawn on a sticky note over the photocopied drawing, corrected some of my errors.
I had shown the old-fashioned deadeyes instead of rigging screws and had drawn the wrong kind of gooseneck attaching the boom to the mast. These corrections were going on by phone, mail and email for months after our meeting.
It really helps when a scientific or historical consultant can draw to explain their points, and many of them can.
With all the references and corrections in place, and after nearly a year of
research and roughs, I finally was ready to start the 30 x 40-inch oil painting, which took a couple of months. Most of the time was devoted to painting the various figures.
As I worked, I did everything I could to project myself into the action of the scene: playing the soundtrack to Master and Commander, the Flying Dutchman overture, and Rimsky Korsakov——and reading again and again the eyewitness accounts.
Warfare was such a brutal face-to-face thing in the Civil War. The guys on the Virginia could hear the screams of the Cumberland's wounded men below decks as they drowned.
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1A: The Backstory
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1B: The Research
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 2: Choosing the Scene
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 3: Acting it Out
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 4: Final Art